Chancellor Merkel’s hands are freer now against Turkey’s EU bid

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to Guido Westerwelle, party leader of the Free Democrats, FDP, in the parliament in Berlin.

September 29, 2009, Tuesday/ 16:49:00
Sunday's parliamentary elections in Germany granted a second term to incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel, a leading opponent of Turkey's European Union membership bid, sending the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a firm supporter of Turkey's EU bid, into opposition.

The conservative Merkel ended her four-year “grand coalition” with Steinmeier's party thanks to a record showing by her new coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), while her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) performed unimpressively.

Merkel's conservatives have long suggested that Turkey should have a vaguely defined “privileged partnership” with the EU rather than full membership, although it has been a long-standing position that has played no role in this campaign, likely out of consideration for the 600,000 German voters with Turkish roots.

The FDP, meanwhile, argues that there is no prospect of a final decision on Turkey's membership in the next few years and that it will depend on Ankara implementation of reforms and on the EU's capacity to absorb new members.

Monday's newspapers in Turkey reflected a mood of apparent panic over Merkel's re-election to power, this time more strongly and particularly without the balancing impact of the SPD concerning Turkey's EU drive.

Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won 33.8 percent of the vote, and the SPD took 23 percent. The FDP captured 14.6 percent, the Left Party 11.9 percent and the Greens 10.7 percent. That gave the conservatives 239 seats and the FDP 93 in the lower house -- for a comfortable center-right majority of 332 seats to 290. The SPD won 146, the Left Party 76 and the Greens 68. It was a major shift from the 2005 election, in which Merkel's conservatives just squeaked past the SPD.

Experts speaking with Today's Zaman on Monday urged vigilance in the upcoming phase in regards to Germany's stance vis-à-vis Turkey's EU bid, noting, however, that there is no need for outright panic.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a party executive meeting of her Christian Democrats as her supporters celebrate in Berlin on Monday.

For their part, German officials have assured that the change of coalition partners will not have any negative effect on Germany's relations with Turkey.

“Turkey is and will be one of our major partners. Whoever the foreign minister becomes in the new government, we have taken over some obligations and responsibilities as far as the German position as it agreed to the EU's opening of negotiations with an objective of accession. These are obligations that we will honor,” the same German officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Today's Zaman.

Calling concerns reflected within the Turkish media “a little bit of overreaction,” the German officials said that Merkel, in her capacity as chancellor, has never mentioned changing Germany's position on honoring EU commitments vis-à-vis Turkey.

Comradeship of Merkel and Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Merkel are the most high-profile European politicians opposed to Turkey's accession. Sarkozy claims Turkey does not belong in Europe, while Merkel promotes a “privileged partnership” that falls short of membership, a formula Ankara categorically rejects.

Merkel, who had replaced then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in autumn 2005, had first broached the concept of “privileged partnership” during her visit to Turkey in February 2004. Merkel said at the time that she observed “pretty simple and pretty good” prospects for Turkey's inclusion within the scope of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).  Sarkozy, who was then a presidential hopeful and leader of the ruling French Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), has given constant support to Merkel's idea since then.

As cited in a recent report by the Independent Commission on Turkey, France has publicly declared that it will not allow five key areas of the negotiations to go forward, specifically because the current French leadership opposes Turkish accession and believes Ankara should be offered “partnership, not integration.”

Most part of concerns regarding the re-election of Merkel actually stem from the evident example displayed by the French leadership in handicapping Turkey's EU membership process. The question on Turkish minds is whether Merkel will act like Sarkozy or even imitate him and concretely hinder pace of negotiations since she will openly feel stronger without the SPD's pressure on her in favor of Turkey.

Pacta sund servanta

Suat Kınıklıoğlu, the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) deputy chairman for external affairs, agrees that the SPD's absence in the German coalition is displaying a “more problematic” picture for Turkey when compared to the past.

“However, we should not overlook the fact that a majority of EU states still favor Turkey's entry into the union. We need to see how the talk will progress. The FDP is a relative newcomer to the German discourse on Turkey's EU membership issue. That said, we need to be vigilant about the German constellation in the coming weeks,” Kınıklıoğlu told Today's Zaman.

“Even if the new German government takes on a more negative approach, Turkey will continue to its determination to push the membership drive forward. We will continue to remind our European allies of the principle of pacta sund servanda [a principle of international law which means in Latin that agreements must be kept] -- that is exactly what Chancellor Merkel has been saying and we expect the new German government to uphold this principle,” he added.

İlter Turan, a professor of international relations from the İstanbul-based Bilgi University, believes that there is no need for panic on the issue because Germany's foreign policy will not be solely shaped by a change in partners in a coalition government.

There have been already problems in Turkey-EU relations, such as Austria's objection and the Cyprus issue, Turan noted, adding: “Presence of an electorate with Turkish roots in Germany and this country's comprehensive bilateral relationship with Turkey will keep Merkel from acting like Sarkozy.”

Inch or miles away from Sarkozy

Turan added: “Mrs. Merkel is not someone who is keen on showing off like Sarkozy is. No doubt problems will continue, but these problems will not solely stem from the German government's stance.”

Sinan Ülgen, head of the İstanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), believes that the form of the new coalition government poses “a risk” to Turkey's EU membership drive.

“Unlike France, Germany didn't create a serious problem for Turkey's EU bid, and this was thanks to SPD because the two parties had made a coalition protocol under which commitment to Turkey's EU bid was also secured,” Ülgen told Today's Zaman. “Now cards are being redistributed, and that protocol is no longer valid,” he added.

Ülgen explained that the FDP had assumed a positive approach toward Turkey in the past, adding, however, that the party has gone through a significant transformation, particularly in the last five years.

“It's probable the new coalition will have a different tone than the previous one in regards to Turkey's EU accession. Yet, what matters -- and where the real risk lies -- is the extent to which this difference will bring the new coalition closer to Sarkozy-style politics. We will be able to see that when the new coalition protocol is negotiated.”

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